Tuesday, March 19, 2002 @ 2:03 PM
Rhythm Guitarist Marcus Siepen
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Count German power metal giants Blind Guardian among the collateral damage casualties of the early-90s grunge invasion in America. Though the group did not suffer a humiliating fall from grace like so many hair bands and such stalwarts as Scorpions, Dio and Iron Maiden did in the wake of Nirvana, et al., Blind Guardian never got a chance to get off the ground over here. Even as its popularity was soaring in Europe and Japan, the suits at Virgin Records didnít think the bandís intricate, epic, speed metal would fly amid all the flannel - perhaps with good reason - in the states.
So for more than a decade, Blind Guardian albums like Imaginations From The Other Side and Somewhere Far Beyond that were selling hundreds of thousands of copies in the rest of the world, were available here only to those who wanted to pay import prices. Nevertheless, the band attained a cult status within the underground that kept people talking about it. Finally, after issuing the sprawling conceptual masterpiece Nightfall In Middle-Earth [based on J.R.R. Tolkienís The Silmarillion] in 1998, Blind Guardianís commercial weight had grown to the point where its big label keepers ceded the American market.
Nightfall was licensed to Century Media Records here and sold 20,000 copies in short order with hardly any promotion and no touring. Earlier albums also were issued here and sold similar amounts, and frontman Hansi Kurschís Demons & Wizards side project with Iced Earthís Jon Schaffer was very well received.
And now that Blind Guardian has its foot in Americaís door, it looks like the band is going to push its way on in and make itself right at home. ďAnd Then There Was Silence,Ē the 14-minute-long lead single from Blind Guardianís first new release in four years, A Night At The Opera, incredibly cracked the Billboard Top 200 singles chart here and the buzz about the album continues to build by the day - with good reason.
Opera is stupefying, plain and simple, the finest hour - actually about 70 minutes - in the Krefeld-based bandís 14-year, nine-album career. Capturing the sheer grandiosity of Nightfall, while shedding its conceptual weight in favor of more punch, Opera is Blind Guardianís Powerslave, its Empire. The glorious guitarwork of Andre Olbrich and Marcus Seipen, the dive-bomb tempos piloted by Thomen Stauch and the gorgeous melodies and gigantic harmonies that liberally decorate the album will have many jaws hitting the floor.
Opera already is a smash in Europe. Buoyed by ďSilenceísĒ success, the album hit #1 in Greece, #5 in Germany #11 in Italy and # 17 in Austria. And it very well could be the first Century Media to dent the American charts. The band will make its live debut in the states in November with promise of a full-blown soon thereafter.
From his living room in Krefeld, rhythm guitarist Marcus Siepen offered the following about the biggest band youíve probably never heard.
KNAC.COM: Is this your first real taste of American press, or did you get some with the last album?
MARCUS: We did a bit with the last one. But itís starting today with this one. Youíre the first one for me. We actually had two guys over here doing studio reports at the end of last year. Today and tomorrow we have about 40 phoners to do, so the schedule is pretty packed. You will be reading about us a lot in America, I think.
The first real proper release there was the last album, Nightfall In Middle-Earth, which was in Ď99, after it was released in the rest of the world in Ď98. Century Media released that one in the states, but we havenít played there yet, although we are planning to.
KNAC.COM: I was amazed when I was poking around your Web site to find out you hadnít played in England yet either.
MARCUS: No (laughs). The situation with the U.K. is a little strange I guess. The guys over there are pretty much focusing on bands from the U.K. and Virgin U.K. was never really interested in Blind Guardian and I guess the huge success we had with the single release from the new album changed their mind because for whatever reason they are planning on releasing us and getting us over for a tour. And thatís fine.
"["And Then There Was Silence"] was to show the people why it took so long for us to write all the stuff and record it... We wanted to let the people know weíre not a bunch of lazy guys sitting around in the sun."
KNAC.COM: Were you surprised Nightfall did as well as it did in the states, or had you established a cult following from people buying imports of your earlier records.
MARCUS: Not really surprised. We knew that we had some fans over there through the Internet, people were coming to our home page and telling us, ďWeíre from the states and we had to buy all your stuff as import albums,Ē so we knew that there were a lot of Blind Guardian fans over there in the states. Of course we didnít have a clue what would happen when we finally got our official release, but we are quite happy.
We announced our first ever U.S. gig three days ago [at the ProgPower Festival in Atlanta on Nov. 15, so be patient] and the reaction has been great. People told us, ďIím going to travel six or eight hours just to see you guys there.Ē Thatís great. There will be definitely more shows.
KNAC.COM: When might they be?
MARCUS: This is the only one confirmed at the moment, we are in the middle of planning the rest of the tour. Everything booked ends after the Wacken Open Air in early August and all the dates behind that are just on paper. We want to head over the South America after Wacken, go down to Japan and Australia, then come back and do the rest of Europe in October and then we are supposed to tour the states. So weíll see what happens.
Weíre really looking forward to these gigs. Itís always a challenge to play in a country where we havenít been before, itís always special because you donít really know what to expect or what will happen. But itís gonna be great. The same with the U.K. and weíre going to be playing two shows in Russia this time where we havenít been before and thatís amazing.
KNAC.COM: I guess the obvious questions is, how did you manage to go more than 10 years without releasing an album in U.S., the biggest market in the world?
MARCUS: The reason comes down to Virgin in the states. The funny situation is back in the early days when we were signed to a small independent label here in Germany, No Remorse Records, Virgin did the distribution for the label. And the third album we did, Tales From The Twilight World in 1990, at that time Virgin in the states said, ďYeah, it would be a great band for the states, but we canít do it because they are not signed to Virgin.Ē Half a year later we signed a contract with Virgin worldwide and from that day on they did not have any interest in us any more in the states (laughs). I donít know why, I have no idea
KNAC.COM: That was when Nirvana was blowing up and if you werenít from Seattle, no one wanted to have anything to do with you - especially if you were a metal band.
MARCUS: That maybe one of the reasons, I donít know. Nobody ever said anything to us about it. I guess in the end they couldnít deny our success, we became too huge to be ignored (laughs). Maybe thatís why they thought about releasing us, or allowing the albums to be released. We said, ďSo guys, if you donít want to do it, we want to look for another company in the states,Ē and they agreed on that. Century Media made the best offer and we knew those guys since the early Ď90s from the work they did with bands like Iced Earth or Nevermore, who were are friends with. So everything is fine now.
KNAC.COM: Isnít the record business great?
MARCUS:(laughs) Itís strange sometimes, but you canít do anything about it. If they say, "No, we wonít release that album,Ē what can you do? It sucks for the fans, we are pretty aware of that so we are glad Century Media finally released all the stuff. At least theyíve released everything from Tales From The Twilight World.
KNAC.COM: Does the audience you have in Europe and Japan, continue to grow or have you reached your peak there?
MARCUS: Oh no, itís growing. Thatís the great thing. You can see it at the concerts, theyíre getting bigger and bigger every tour and also you can see it by the success the [ďSilenceĒ] single had. We were No. 1 in the Spanish charts for a couple of weeks and since it was released in November itís been in the Top 10 there, it never left there. Itís been a huge chart success all over the world. We ended up on the German chart, Japanese, Greek, Swedish, Canadian, whatever.
KNAC.COM: Even in the U.S.
MARCUS: Yeah, the guys at Century Media were freaking out, even though it was only like at 172. But they had never had something make the American singles chart before. Itís great. This single has been the biggest single success weíve ever had. Itís a good omen, I would say.
KNAC.COM: The fact that itís a 14-minute long song makes it even more amazing?
MARCUS: Yeah, not quite the typical radio song. We thought about which song to pick for the single and there were two reasons for choosing this one. The first one was to show the people why it took so long for us to write all the stuff and record it. If you listen to that song you know it was a lot of work in the studio. We wanted to let the people know weíre not a bunch of lazy guys sitting around in the sun.
And also, after this four-year break where no album or single was released from us we wanted to give the people as much new material as possible and with this one single you get almost 20 minutes of new music. This was also our way of saying thanks for waiting so long. And I guess everyone appreciated that.
KNAC.COM: Did it really take you four months to put ďSilenceĒ together?
MARCUS: Yes. Itís about 200 tracks that we recorded for that one fucking song. 200 tracks, other bands make three albums of that (laughs). But, thatís just us, I guess. It wasnít planned to happen like that. We never sat down and said, ďWell, we have to have a 14-minute long song.Ē We started writing stuff and the first chorus appeared after four or five minutes and at that point we knew ďWell, this one is going to be a little longer than the rest of songs.Ē
After the release of the single, most of our fans were asking, ďWell, is that the way the whole album will sound like?Ē And of course itís not, that would be a bit too much, I guess.
KNAC.COM: Then things start getting tedious.
MARCUS: Yeah, definitely. That was kind of an experiment for us. I donít know if weíre ever going to do something like that again. Thereís no masterplan when we start writing. It was an experiment to us and it worked, at least in our opinion.
KNAC.COM: Will you play the song live? Can you play the song live?
MARCUS: Weíre thinking about that at the moment. Weíre in the middle of rehearsal and weíre still working on the set list. The plan is to record another double live CD on that tour, so weíre practicing a whole lot of songs so we can change the set from time to time in order to record as many songs as possible and we started rehearsing that song. But to be honest I donít know if itís going to make it into the set.
Obviously itís difficult to play that song, concerning all the choirs and all the guitar arrangements and the keyboard stuff. Weíll try it, but I donít know. I donít want to promise anything. It would be interesting to play that song.
This question recurs after every album we release. We just separate between recording stuff and playing it live. When we go into the studio we just try everything that comes to our mind. And if we end up with 60 guitar tracks and 100 vocal tracks, whatever, if thatís the stuff we like in the studio we record it. And at that point we donít think about how we will do it live.
Then when we start rehearsing for the tour we focus on the main melody lines concerning the vocals and the guitars and everything else. So itís definitely going to sound different live. Itís much more raw and much more energetic and heavy, I guess. And up Ďtil now no one has complained. The good thing about Blind Guardian concerts is that we always have a couple thousand people in front of the stage singing all the choirs (laughs). That helps a lot.
KNAC.COM: Taking four months to put one song together, at what point does it just get ridiculous?
MARCUS:(Laughs) Everybody in the band is a perfectionist concerning everything that is related to our music. We work a lot on the songs, changing the arrangements here and there and when you change, for example, the keyboard arrangements to something more classical, you have to change the guitar along with that and then the drums and whatever, so it becomes like an endless process.
But everybody knew that this song had to turn out perfect in order to work properly, so we had to work hard on that one and in the end everyone was happy. It was a hell of a job to mix all this shit (laughs), but everyone had a vision of this song in their mind and luckily everyone had the same sort of vision.
KNAC.COM: You had worked with Flemming Rasmussen a couple times and heís known for working on stuff with an epic scale - like Metallicaís ...And Justice For All - why did you not work with him this time? He would seem like a logical choice?
MARCUS: Flemming is a great guy and we really enjoyed working with him and it might happen that we work with him in the future. But on this album we knew we wanted to record everything in our own studio [Twilight Hall IV] here in Krefeld and we also wanted to mix it here, because that was why we built the studio. Flemming is a guy who is used to working in his own studio [Sweet Silence in Copenhagen], thatís where we recorded the last two albums. And living in Denmark isnít that cheap.
So we decided to work with Charlie Bauerfeind, who also was involved with the Nightfall recordings, we have known him for quite some time. I have no idea who is going to do the next one, but I donít think weíll have to worry about that for three or four years (laughs).
KNAC.COM: Do you go into the studio with everything scripted out, or just a framework and let things go from there?
MARCUS: We have everything finished before we enter the studio. When you start writing all the shit when youíre in the studio it takes way too much time. But some parts change. We changed a lot of the drum arrangements in pre-production and with these changes the album became even heavier than it was planned to be in the beginning. So it became a little more aggressive, which is fine it works fine with all the songs.
KNAC.COM: I got just e-mailed 15 pages worth of lyrics for Night At The Opera, is this another concept work like Night Fall?
MARCUS: No. We had the concept all over the last one so we skipped that for this one. Itís 10 songs with different topics. Two have the same topic, which is The Iliad and the fall of Troy, the songs are ďAmong The SilenceĒ and ďUnder The Ice.Ē But beside that the songs have different topics with no connection. Some are about pure fantasy stories, one is about Jesus Christ, one is about German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, different stuff.
KNAC.COM: On your Web site there was a list where fans could pick the lyrical topic of a song from some suggestions [which included everything from Nordic mythology and HP Lovecraft to something called the Nibelungenlied and The Ancient Bylina of Volga]. Did you ever end up doing something with the winner?
MARCUS: Yes, itís the song ďThe Soulforged,Ē itís about the Dragonlance stories from whoever [Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman], I didnít read the books I have to admit (laughs) that was Hansiís job.
KNAC.COM: He writes all of the lyrics?
MARCUS: Yeah, he has to sing the stuff so he has to write it.
KNAC.COM:... and read all the books they are based on?
MARCUS: Yeah. And he had plenty of work reading The Silmarillion for the last album He read it five times in a row I guess because itís really complex and there is a million characters to keep track of. He wanted to do it right, so he made sure he knew it inside and out - or as least as much as one can with Tolkien.
KNAC.COM: Speaking of Tolkien, what did you guys think of Lord of the Rings?
MARCUS: Everybody in the band has seen it and I love it. I know thereís some things from the book that are missing, like Tom Bombadiel for example, but still itís a great movie. Until this movie I would have thought it impossible to make a good movie out of this book because itís so huge and complex, but Peter Jackson did a great job and what I heard is that DVD version will contain all the stuff thatís missing in the cinema version, so itíll be one hour longer which will be awesome.
KNAC.COM: There had been talk of you doing some work on the soundtrack, whatever became of that?
MARCUS: When they announced that they were going to do the movie tons of fans sites on the Internet came up and they had all these votes about who should do the soundtrack and we won all of them (laughs). So that got the attention of Peter Jackson and we managed to get in contact with them and we were asked to send them demo material, but at that time we were stuck in the middle of pre-production and the songwriting of the new album and in the end we said ďthanks for the offer, but we wonít send you anything.Ē
Had we got that job, there wouldnít be a new Blind Guardian album out at the moment and Blind Guardian is definitely more important to us than doing the soundtrack for the movie. It would have been great, but after a four-year break you donít want to make that a five-year break. So thatís why we said, ďLetís focus on Blind Guardian and thatís it.Ē
KNAC.COM: Since you mentioned that people are signing along when you play live, the lyrics, the themes arenít going over their heads?
MARCUS: All the lyrical stuff is printed in the [CD] booklets; weíre not trying to hide anything from them. We want them to explore the topics as well. Over the last week, everybody has been asking what the songs are about, can we have the lyrics. Unfortunately, the album has been on the Internet for the last three or four weeks, so people have been downloading the stuff and listening to it and some even wrote down the lyrics and posted them onto the forum on our homepage (laughs). Theyíre definitely into the lyrics, so thatís fine.